Pixar’s new releasee Inside Out is making a huge buzz at the box office. It’s proven to be both a commercial and critical success; some see the film as Pixar’s return to form, their best work since Toy Story 3. As for me, I liked the film quite a bit. I don’t think I loved the film, but did find it very entertaining as well as thought-provoking on some levels. In particular, Inside Out got me thinking about these so-called ‘children’s movies’ and the films that deal with children and childhood. In general I find a large number of such films, no matter how technically well-made they are, patronising and dishonest, and even contemptible in some cases. However, Inside Out surprisingly manages to pull itself out of the popular trend in the genre, and brings maturity and freshness on the table—well, most of the time, that is.
One of the most striking features of Inside Out is its treatment of Sadness, both the character and emotion. In many children’s films, sadness hardly exists. It almost feels like compulsion the way these films place sadness underneath a blanket, and make their boy and girl characters smile at all times. It’s as if the creative force behind these movies think that children are incapable of feeling anything other than happiness (but especially sadness), or rather ‘unable’ to handle it—at once naive, and at once patronising attitude that, in my opinion, should be condemned. Inside Out, too, seems to stick to these conventions for the first half; Joy is the captain of the quintet responsible for the child heroine Riley’s emotional life, and the sense of over-protectiveness pervade the film. Whatever happens to Riley and whatever goes on inside her head, it all leads to Joy sitting at the control console, and the world inside the film gleams with warmly saturated colours. Consequently the movie gives off the suffocating impression that at the end of everything, Riley is forced to feel jolly and fine. The rest—Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust—are perceived to be some sort of ‘necessary evil’ that gets in the way of Joy’s novel duty: the duty to make Riley happy.
However, Inside Out takes a different turn when Joy and Sadness are by accident banished from the headquarter which functions as the control tower for Riley’s brain. As a result the control console is unwillingly taken over by Anger, Fear, and Disgust; it is at this point in which Riley seems like a more ‘humanised’ being, as some different emotions replace the persistent presence of smile on her face. Even for the most privileged children amongst all privileged children, I don’t think it’s natural to constantly feel delighted and cheerful. That would be as tiring as constantly feeling low, don’t you think? Back to the film, the three supposedly not-so-positive emotions struggle with the task, but do get by. After all, a little bit of disobedience and frustration are more than common at that age. Meanwhile Joy has to ‘literally’ drag around Sadness who is apparently too sad to even walk on her own feet—again, Sadness is depicted as an obstacle. Joy, so passionate about her job, demonstrates her Machiavellian quality by leaving behind Sadness, but only to fail. She soon realises that a safe-return-home is impossible without Sadness; gradually, as their journey continues, Joy comes to see the seemingly contradictory, yet essential need for coexistence between the two: the simple truth that like light and darkness, Joy and Sadness affirm each other’s very existence.
Here, not only is Sadness taken as one of the major characters in the film, but also embraced as necessary component in Riley’s emotional life. Surely, there have been sadness and disappointment in children’s films before, but they have been more or less depicted as the forbidden fruit that results in the loss of innocence: an inevitable toll gate in growing up, if you like. Inside Out, on the other hand, restores their existential purpose by giving back Sadness her liberty at the control console, thereby demonstrating a maturer attitude. The Pixar universe does not reduce children to machines with a handful of mostly ‘happy’ and ‘curious’ facial expressions, but instead dignifies them as human beings capable of experiencing myriad feelings. Well, there are only five ‘major’ emotions in the film, but humanisation of children alone is an achievement worthy of praise.
Another noteworthy aspect of the film is that the five emotions inside Riley’s head are mixed-gendered. While Joy, Sadness and Disgust are female, Fear and Anger are male. This is an interesting point especially because the genders of emotions inside adults’ brains are homogenous: mother’s are all female, and father’s are all male. What does it mean? Our heronine’s gender (role) is not ‘presupposed’ by an external force—be it the creative force behind the production or the adult characters in the film—and it is therefore up to her to decide on her place in the world. By doing this Pixar secures Riley’s independence and responsibilities in her life, which are essential elements in the concept of ‘freedom.’ To take it further, I would like to suggest that Inside Out manages to be a ‘democratic’ film that shows respect for its protagonist’s liberty as a human person, notwithstanding her age.
It is always deeply satisfying to see in films that a character is not ‘consumed’ as a tool for narratives and events in it, but dignified and respected as she deserves to be: all the more pleasing if the character is a member of the often-‘oppressed’ group. I would like to see Inside Out as the beginning of further improvements in ‘children’s films’—bringing back dignity and intelligence to the films made for children.